A Guy’s Life and Work and His Country’s Transformation

Jia Zhangke, NYC, 10/3/13

Jia Zhangke, NYC, 10/3/13

“Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang” is the result of the unlikely pairing of the acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and the great Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke. While filmmaking styles and concerns would seem to separate the man from Rio from his subject more than the distance between their hometowns (17,128 km), his documentary is a fascinating and intimate portrait of Jia’s life and work in (and reflecting) a country undergoing convulsive change.

Salles has said, “When I saw ‘Xiao Wu’ and later ‘Platform,’ I was completely taken by (his) visionary talent…Sometimes we doubt that film might still be the place where we can resort to better understand the world around us. Jia Zhangke’s films are fundamental to grasp the complexity of the culture he unveils. He brought cinema back to where it belongs–to the heart of the discussion. ‘The World’ and ‘Still Life’ reaffirmed and deepened that perception.”

Exploring literal terrain and that of memory, Salles travels with Jia back to Fenyang, in Shanxi Province in Northern China and to other locations (where over nearly 20 years he has he shot his films) including the World Park (“famous sites from five continents”) in Beijing. Salles also documents Jia speaking about his work to a packed auditorium at the Cultural Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing where he is a professor of experimental art. (Sitting on the stage in a big club chair, his feet barely touch the floor.)

They visit Jia’s early childhood home on a crumbling courtyard, where an elderly neighbor affectionately recalls nickname, Jai Lailai (bad boy), and his mother in her roomy, modern apartment. She misses the courtyard and its apple trees. Discussing the transformation of Fenyang (and China), Jia says that change is inevitable, “What I can do is record everything in my films.”

Interviews with actors (including Zhao Tao, Jia’s frequent lead and his wife since 2012, who talks about their unlikely meeting, and their collaborations) and other colleagues add to the film, as do well-chosen excerpts from many of his films. But it was the choice to shoot Jia in the streets and interiors that he knows well, talking about life, family, work (and, with ambivalence, that without pirated DVDs, his films would be mostly unseen at home), politics, China’s history, the internet, globalization, that makes the film more personal and cinematic than many talking head documentaries.

“Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang” will open on Friday, May 27 at Anthology Film Archives and will run through Thursday, June 2. Three of Jia’s films (“Mountains May Depart,” “A Touch of Sin” and “Still Life”) will also be shown, on Saturday, May 28 and Sunday, May 29.

Walter Salles (squatting), with, left to right, producer Arthur Cohn and actors Fernanda Montenegro and Vinicius de Oliveira, NYC, 11/5/98

Walter Salles (squatting), with, left to right, producer Arthur Cohn and actors Fernanda Montenegro and Vinicius de Oliveira, NYC, 11/5/98

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Animal Rights Are Person Rights

D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, NYC, 3/26/16

D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, NYC, 3/26/16

“We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are all innocent,” says pioneering animal rights lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Right Project (NhRP). His 30-year struggle’s recent groundbreaking successes are chronicled by legendary filmmaker team Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker in their riveting new documentary, “Unlocking the Cage,” which plays like a legal thriller (with comic relief).

Frustrated by the profound limits of poorly enforced animal welfare laws and the designation of all nonhuman animals, regardless of their level of cognitive complexity, as things (as slaves and all women once were), and therefore without any legal rights, Steve and his team devised a remarkable strategy. With affidavits from scientists and primatologists, NhRP began to build a case that animals such as great apes, elephants and cetaceans (whales, dolphins) have “the capacity for fundamental personhood rights (such as bodily liberty) that would protect them from physical abuse.”

Wise, based in Coral Springs, FL, located four plaintiffs/chimpanzees (in a Niagra Falls storefront, an upstate garage and a research lab at SUNY Stony Brook). In December 2013, using the writ of habeas corpus, he filed three lawsuits in New York State, demanding limited personhood rights for Kiko, Tommy, Hercules and Leo. The NhRP urged the courts to release the four to Save the Chimps, an animal sanctuary in Florida, created by NASA.

The 2014 decisions of the courts in Rochester and Albany varied widely, but denied personhood for the chimps. During an appearance on the Colbert Report, the host, always absurdity-aware, suggested to Wise that if Tommy wanted rights as a person, “he should form his own corporation.”

But in New York, Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe, presiding over Hercules and Leo’s case, signaled a seismic cultural shift, questioning, “Why can’t a chimpanzee be deemed a person for the sole purposes Mr. Wise says, of permitting the habeas writ to the very limited extent sought. Why isn’t that an appropriate use of this great writ?”

On July 30, 2015, Jaffe ruled that personhood for nonhuman animals was a possibility and Stony Brook announced that it would no longer use Hercules and Leo in research. The slow work to have them retired to Save the Chimps was immediately begun by the NhRP.

Wise, quantifying the progress that has been made in achieving rights for nonhuman animals, called Jaffe’s ruling “about the end of the beginning” of the battle.

(There’s no denying that the culture’s consciousness is being raised. I recently saw a commercial–for a company, Petco, that might have to change its name–selling food “to help them thrive,” which referred to dogs and cats both as pets and companions in the same 30-second spot.)

“Unlocking the Cage” will open on Wednesday, May 25 at Film Forum. Chris Hegedus, D A Pennebaker and Steven Wise will be in person at the 7:00 pm shows on Wednesday, May 25, Thursday, May 26, Friday, May 27 and at the 4:40 pm show on Saturday, May 28.

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An American Original (and the films he made long before “underground” became a marketing come-on)

Robert Downey Sr., NYC, 5/11/16

Robert Downey Sr., NYC, 5/11/16

I saw director Robert Downey Sr.’s “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” at a local duoplex.  I was in my mid-teens and went with my best friend and a tall boy I liked. None of us was old enough to be admitted according to the then movie rating system but the suburban theater wasn’t exactly packing them in—-maybe that’s why the woman at the box office who gave us an uneasy once-over took our money without asking for ID.

Of course I remember the films’ basic plots and some hilarious specifics but what has really stayed with me was how they blew my mind (to use antique slang I never used), the giant effect the films had on me. (Adam says it shows.) I’d never seen films anything like them. And I still haven’t.

Today, in advance of Film Forum’s retrospective of Downey’s work, I watched “Chafed Elbows.” And had the same blown away reaction I had decades ago in Hartsdale. The film, misadventures of handsome, 27-year-old New Yorker, Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), combines b&w stills and footage and is a picaresque river of consciousness, with humor whiplashing through the absurd, political, punning, visual, satirical and Borscht Beltian.

Our nearly affectless young hero, spends his days slogging through his bi-annual walking nervous breakdown, while hanging out with underground filmmakers, an artist (who signs his initials–A.W.–on Walter’s raincoat), a faux therapist (Lawrence Wolf, who also did voices for 34 other characters), a pregnant cousin, a record producer, the Virgin Mary (during a brief trip to heaven), beat cops, Rhoda Dendron (met at a bar mitzvah in Mineola) and his mother/lover (Elsie Downey, who played “all the girls”).

“Chafed Elbows” (1966), made for $12,000, is great (even the opening and end credits are funny) and played continuously in New York for over a year.

“Robert Downey (The Original),” a one-week retrospective, will open Friday, May 20 at Film Forum. Robert Downey Sr. (a prince) will appear in person following Friday’s 8:20 pm show of “Putney Swope” for an interview with Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein and audience Q&A. He will also appear at the 3:00 pm show of “Chafed Elbows” on Sunday, May 22 and on Wednesday, May 25 at the 8:20 pm show of “Putney Swope.”

Recently I’ve had discussions with two other photographers, trying to determine when using black and white in a digital world can be more than a filter-clicking, attention-getting trick. I loved shooting TXP 120 (rated at 250) with my Hasselblad 500 C/M (and miss doing it) but arbitrarily converting files made with either my Canon 5Ds or Phase One back on the Hasselblad seems pretentious.

After we figured out time and place details, Bob asked me if I’d shoot black and white, adding, “I hope so.” So I had the excuse I needed. I would do what Bob preferred. But then he arrived at the studio and his eyes were nearly Paul Newman blue. He was ok with the change of plan.

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A Lilac Bush’s Semi-Unusual Prostrate Habit (Stillwater Diary)

Lilac bush, Stone Ridge, 5/8/16

Lilac bush, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/8/16

Winter 2015’s late season heavy, wet snow sheared branches off the intricate old lilac bushes and toppled one, horizontal, parallel to the ground, but still tenuously rooted. The plant, ok with its new posture, survived, and the first lilac flower this deep dismal May opened on that bush. Determined sucker growth is pushing out, vertically, along the downed but surviving trunk. (Reality can suggest corny metaphors–bloom where you find yourself, etc.–but I’ll pass.)

The false hellebores are taking a pass too–no slender green spikes holding nearly camouflaged small green flowers this year. The genuine hellebores seemingly spent the winter in some critters’ mouths. The leaves look like they were cut with pinking shears and the buds are missing. But  the violets (which share their name with my favorite little girl) are blooming profusely near the Groverkill and in the woods.

New Paltz, NY, 5/13/16 (deep dismal)

New Paltz, NY, 5/13/16 (deep dismal)

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It’s the Land

Terence Davies

Terence Davies

“Sunset Song,” the great auteur Terence Davies’s powerful and romantic new film opens with a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of an endless golden field of gluten (I mean, wheat) and finds lovely Scottish schoolgirl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) seated in the stalks, nearly swallowed up.

Based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon about the hardships of rural life and the ties that bind (and fray) in the early years of the 20th century, leading inexorably to World War I, the film is (as is characteristic for Davies) exquisitely lit and composed and suffused with melancholy.

Chris, bright and energetic, has big plans to become a teacher. But tragedy caused by the cumulative actions of her god-fearing, ferocious father John (Peter Mullan, riveting, as always) abruptly destroys them. She accepts her new role as housekeeper and farm worker. When John has a stroke (felled, flailing in the dirt outside their barns), Chris assumes all responsibilities. Although bed-ridden and fully dependent on her, John’s emotional abuse continues unabated, “You’re my flesh and blood and I can do with you what I will.”

After John’s death, as his sole designated heir (she has three surviving brothers, living elsewhere), Chris is determined to embrace her inheritance and stay on the land. A marriage to a local boy, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), her eager partner on the farm, is briefly idyllic. They joyfully welcome a son, named for his father. But the war in Europe reaches their small, remote community.

Possessing a quiet strength forged by multiple tragedies, Chris now understands the rough and enduring land, her place on it, and is comforted for the future by the eternal cycle of the seasons.

(Department of lowbrow, or maybe just evidence of a typical boomer childhood with lots of time spent watching movies on TV: Chris seems to be a cousin of another beautiful heroine in a melodrama, Katie Scarlett O’Hara.)

“Sunset Song” will open on Friday, May 13 at Film Forum. A Q&A with Terence Davies, moderated by Indiewire senior film critic David Ehrlich, will follow the 6:45 pm show.

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The It-est Girl

Anna Karina, NYC, 7/12/01

Anna Karina, NYC, 7/12/01

Anna Karina, who  between 1961 and 1966, starred in seven films made with her creative and romantic partner, Jean-Luc Godard, was a luminous, perfect presence in/of her moment, and preserved for the screen, that moment is forever. There has never been another actress like her.

Godard based his great “Band of Outsiders” (1964), on a dark thriller, “Fools’ Gold” by Dolores Hitchens, but stripped away most of the elaborate plotting, until he had “a romantic girl,” two guys with few prospects and an armoire stuffed with cash.

Odile (Karina) who lives with her guardian Madame Victoria in an isolated villa in a dull Parisian suburb meets Franz (Sami Frey) at her English class in town. Seen arriving on her bicycle for a lesson, she has an unlikely hairdo (twin buns tied with ribbons over her ears), and dresses like a younger school girl (a plaid, pleated skirt, knee socks and a pea coat)–and has that certain je ne sais quoi in spades.

As alluring as Odile is to Franz, it’s her casual comment, which he repeats to his chum Arthur (Claude Brasseur) about Mr. Stoltz (Madame Victoria’s tenant), having a hidden fortune, that draws the three together. A seemingly simple robbery plan is hatched, which Odile struggles to thwart. But crazy for Arthur (“I love you,” she reveals, soon after they meet. “Already?” his response. “Lightning struck.”) she’s unable to resist. Awry hardly suffices to describe how the noir/madcap crime unfolds.

The film (which Pauline Kael called, “a reverie of a gangster movie”) is rightfully famous for its set pieces (the trio’s irresistible and slightly nutty line dance “Le Madison,” and a fast forward viewing of the Louvre’s collection). But “Band of Outsiders,” also has endless ideas–visual, in the dialog (and lack of,  a 35-second “minute of silence”), with Michel Legrand’s romantic score (often contradicting the action) and with a rare voiceover (spoken by Godard) to be wholly successful (and self-referential, using asides to comment on the nature of filmmaking).

“Band of Outsiders,” in a glowing new restoration, will open on Friday, May 6 at Film Forum for a one-week run. Anna Karina will appear in person for a discussion and audience Q&A following the 7:30 pm show.

“Anna & Jean-Luc,” a series featuring their six other collaborations (including “Pierre Le Fou,” “Alphaville,” and “Vivre Sa Vie”) will also open on May 6, with one film playing each day through Thursday, May 12.

I’m always excited to do a shoot but I’ve rarely been as amazed (“well, how did I get here?”–once in a lifetime, indeed) as I was when I photographed Anna Karina. (Thanks yet again, Bruce.)

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Living Memory

Ben Chace, NYC, 5/3/16

Ben Chace, NYC, 5/3/16

“Sin Alas” (“Without Wings”) director and writer Ben Chace’s moving and lush new feature (shot on 16mm by Sean Price Williams), parallels the past and present (and the beginning of an unexpected future) of a Havana writer, who was a young child when the revolution began, with that of Cuba.

Traveling in the territory of the (very) famous Faulkner quote, Chace seamlessly shifts between a 1950s dreamscape in Hershey (a company town built in Cuba by the American chocolate giant), the difficult realities of contemporary Havana, and a reverie, scenes of a 1967 short-lived but passionate love affair between Isabela Muñoz (Yulisleyvís Rodrigues) a lovely, renowned (and married) dancer and an idealistic young writer, Luis Vargas (Lieter Ledesma). Decades later, reading Isabela’s obituary, Luis (Carlos Padrón) is powerfully drawn back to that time and to his vivid memories of the woman he never stopped loving.

With the song from one of Isabela’s performances suddenly lodged in his head, Luis enlists his musician friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta) to help him recover its name. In a wonderful series of scenes, the men take to the bustling Havana streets, and with a background of historical architecture and American cars from the 50s, engage fellow Cubans, whose daily lives are filled with music. A professor, hearing the tune in the street from her apartment, invites Luis and Ovilio upstairs and identities the song.

Unable to undo his past, Luis is sensitized to the familial and economic forces that are destroying his young neighbor Katrina’s marriage to Yuniesky, a man her grandmother rejects. Property laws are changing and in an act of extraordinary generosity, Luis tries to to repair their present sorrow and short circuit future longing.

“Sin Alas” (one of the first American productions shot in Cuba in more than 50 years) opens today at Metrograph, and a Q&A with Ben Chace, Lieter Ledesma, composer Aruán Ortiz and critic Juan Antonio Garcia Borrero will follow the 7:30 pm show. There will also be a Q&A on Thursday, May 5, after the 8:00 pm show, with Ben Chace, Lieter Ledesma, and Valerie Forman, Professor of Caribbean Studies at NYU Gallatin and on Monday, May 9 with Ben Chace, following the 7:00 pm screening . The film is also available on Amazon and iTunes.

Lieter Ledesma, NYC, 5/4/16

Lieter Ledesma, NYC, 5/4/16

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